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Protesters feed media while remaining cautious

The Associated Press, Wednesday, October 19, 2011, 10:52pm (PDT)

NEW YORK (AP) -- The Wall Street protest against economic inequality has a chaotic and complicated relationship with media that has helped spread its message across the world from a small Manhattan park.

Like the demonstrations themselves, Occupy Wall Street's media operation has no clear leader or simple message. Some of its volunteers work to help reporters whose cameras and microphones dot Zuccotti Park, even as many protesters express an aversion toward the press.

A red-flowered umbrella and flimsy blue tarp hanging over two tables marked the centerpiece for the media operation, amid sleeping bags and circulating crowds.

"It's triage," Bill Dobbs, a veteran liberal activist who is one of about two dozen volunteers who take shifts at the press area, said Wednesday. There is no central phone number and Dobbs' cell phone voice mail tends to be full.

The media volunteers have counted at least 500 outlets that have sent reporters to the park, including a New Zealand newspaper, a college newspaper from Texas and a documentary filmmaker from Australia. Trucks from television networks were parked on Wednesday along a narrow street next to the park, their transmitters reaching for the sky.

If asked, the volunteers work as "fixers" for reporters who want to interview specific types of people — for example, a student overloaded with college loan debts or a middle-age person out of work, said Jeff Smith, a volunteer who works in advertising.

Last weekend the group held "media training" sessions for protesters, not necessarily to push a certain message but to give tips in dealing with combative reporters, said Beth Bogart, a documentary filmmaker and volunteer.

The media volunteers try to meet daily to discuss what is going on. No one has really taken the lead role, and Dobbs said that's intentional. "We try to avoid accumulating power in that way," he said.

A dry-erase board near the media center advertised the day's schedule of events: "coordinating meeting"; "direct action group meeting"; "burlesque." Nearby, a knot of reporters and demonstrators stood in a circle around one of the day's celebrity visitors: the Rev. Jesse Jackson. His visit wasn't advertised. Others who have dropped by to support the protesters include Susan Sarandon, Kanye West, Mark Ruffalo, Penn Badgley, Tim Robbins and Michael Moore.

Julianne Pepitone, a reporter for CNNMoney.com who has been covering the protest since it started, said that in the early days media volunteers would often approach her in the park and ask if she needed any help. It struck her as a well-oiled machine.

Still, it can get frustrating covering a leaderless movement. "When you speak to these people, they are very careful to say that `I don't speak for the whole revolution. No one does,'" she said.

Rich Stockwell, executive producer of MSNBC's Ed Schultz show, said a media volunteer similarly offered help when Schultz prepared to do a broadcast at the scene. Stockwell sent an email asking for help and got a message saying, "We are receiving 500 emails an hour. I'll get back to you as soon as I can."

"I still haven't heard from him," he said.

What complicates the coverage is the ambivalence — even antipathy — that some of the demonstrators have toward traditional media outlets. Pepitone noted comments complaining that CNN wasn't covering Occupy Wall Street affixed to articles she had written about the protest.

Particular anger is reserved for Fox News Channel. When he appeared at the demonstration, Fox's Geraldo Rivera was surrounded by a group of people beating on drums and chanting, "Fox News lies!" Another video was posted on YouTube showing Rivera retreating after someone threw powder at him.

"You have a point," Rivera told them. "You have momentum. Don't let the jerks steal your movement."

Fox Business Network's John Stossel was also met by hostile people who shouted profanities at him, and he showed the tape on Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly's show Tuesday.

"They're loons," O'Reilly said.

Even Schultz, a liberal commentator sympathetic to the demonstrators' cause, had some negative reactions, MSNBC's Stockwell said.

"Some of them are very angry at the establishment," he said, "and I think they broad-brush us and put us in with them."

Banks are clearly the main focus of the demonstrations, CNN's Pepitone said, but it's clear some people are upset at the media, too.

"They really do at their core want the media coverage," she said. "How do they interest people across the country and across the world in their cause? I think they kind of see it as a necessary evil."

Many protesters prefer to go around the traditional media instead of through it, said Philippa Burgess, a marketer from Los Angeles who was spending several days with the demonstrators to express support. Her favorite "reporter" from the "traditional" media? Jon Stewart of Comedy Central.

There's a suspicion that mainstream media outlets are out to cover the movement's fringes because those protesters make good images — confrontational people or the man holding a sign one day this week: "I love cops who smoke pot." On Wednesday, people with cameras — most of them men — crowded around two women who were naked from the waist up and spray-painted pink and blue.

Burgess said she most valued people spreading stories through social media, or foreign news outlets such as the BBC or Al-Jazeera English. Traditional media outlets "can cover it any way they want to cover it," she said.

"They can cover the fringe people," she said. "Even if they just mention it in a news feed it will connect with the collective conscience, with someone who says, `Maybe I should find out more about this.'"

News media paid attention to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations much sooner than it did for its ideological opposite, the Tea Party, Tom Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said. Mass arrests of demonstrators and because the movement began in the media hotbed of New York, likely played a role.

Last week, Occupy Wall Street coverage took up 9 percent of the week's overall media coverage, the project said. That compared to the Tea Party's 7 percent on the week it launched tax day demonstrations in 2009.

Social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook spread Occupy Wall Street's messages. A handful of people often sit at the table under the umbrella with laptops, sending live streams of the demonstration over the Internet. One woman, Bre Lempitz, writes articles about the action for a website.

"I try to write about things objectively," Lempitz said, "with the understanding that I am part of the movement."

Suspicion of credentialed media also leads citizen reporters to occasionally turn the tables. Cameras are often on hand when there is a confrontation with police as a protective device so people don't have to rely on official accounts. A man with a large video camera, without explanation, recorded one reporter's conversation with Dobbs on Wednesday.

"The power of this protest is because it is people from the outside — literally and figuratively," volunteer Dobbs said.

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